I sometimes think that the term “Golden Age” leads to the idea that all stories from that era are light or optimistic tales with valiant heroes and happy endings. When we think of Golden Age stories, we tend to think of the most famous stories, many of which came from technological optimists like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. The Golden Age bridges a time leading into the Second World War and the boom that followed and the stories reflect the changing mood, just as stories written today reflect the mood of our times. Yet for every Kimball Kinnison, there is a story with a hero more grounded in the realities of the time. And while there are many stories from the Golden Age that convey a sense of optimism, there are a fair number that give us a more realistic view of the world in which they were written.
All of this has been on my mind recently because I’d seen a number of discussions online where the question was asked why there aren’t more positively slanted stories in science fiction today? It is a valid question, but one that often seems to be followed by “…like stories from the Golden Age.” The type of story a reader desires is a matter of personal taste. But as one who has spent the entire year reading every single issue of Astounding from July 1939 through 1941 as part of my Vacation in the Golden Age, I feel obliged to point out that this perception of the Golden Age is inaccurate. There are plenty of dark stories with nasty characters, anti-heroes and bleak outlooks. Some of these stories are probably ones that you’ve even heard of.
I’ve often defined science fiction as stories about the impact of technological change on society. That change can be for better or worse. To set the record straight, I’ve listed below five relatively famous stories from the early part of the Golden Age that, in my opinion, don’t meet the standard definition of the technologically optimistic Golden Age story. The stories are listed chronologically:
- “Trends” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, July 1939). “Trends” was Asimov’s third published story and his first in Astounding. It is the story of humanities first efforts to get to the moon. Asimov’s story poses something that hadn’t been considered in other stories: popular opposition to the space program. Here, it is not the science that is in question but a nation’s will to do what is necessary to take that giant leap forward. At a time when many stories about space travel made it a foregone conclusion, Asimov bucks the tide with a somewhat darker piece.
- “Rust” by Joseph Kelleam (Astounding, October 1939). I’d never heard of this short little story prior to reading it as part of my Vacation in the Golden Age. It is the story of three robots on an Earth devoid of all human life. They’ve been left behind and their parts are failing. One by one, the robots are breaking down, unable to repair one another, until the last one falls down and can no longer get up again and eventually, it “dies.” It is a short, haunting story, and surprisingly dark for an early Golden Age story. It was one of the best 1939 stories I came across.
- “Final Blackout” by L. Ron Hubbard (Astounding, April – June 1940). Hubbard has a reputation these days for things other than his pulp writing in the early 1940s, but the “Final Blackout” serial was the best thing in Astounding that year. It is the story of an almost-present-day (at the time of the writing) Europe that had been utterly devastated by war. A small band of soldiers is attempting to make their way home to England, led by a man known only as the Lieutenant. They see and do things as a result of the war that they might not otherwise have seen or done. It is one of the darker stories I’ve come across in Astounding so far and the Lieutenant is anything but the archetypical Golden Age hero.
- “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, September 1941). Asimov again, and one of his most famous stories (and for a long time, one of the most famous stories in all of science fiction). In this story, a group of scientists, and indeed an entire civilization, watch as it destroys itself once again in a cycle of destruction that scientists and philosophers simply cannot seem to prevent. Technological pessimism at its best.
- “Adam and No Eve” by Alfred Bester (Astounding, September 1941). By the early ’40s the idea of an atomic weapon had started to permeate the consciousness of the country but no one really knew what kind of effect it might have. “Adam and No Eve” is Bester’s attempt to imagine an atomic rocket that is tested–and ultimately ignites the entire atmosphere on fire, killing all life on earth except the pilot of the rocket and his dog. And while there is perhaps the most microscopic hint of hope at the end, we know that hope won’t come to fruition for geological timescales.
The stories I chose were all stories between 1939 and 1941 and that was deliberate. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my Vacation. I also tried to choose stories that were recognizable. But I want to make it clear that these are by no means the only stories that appeared during this time in this darker vain. There were many others. Some of these include stories like “Masson’s Secret” by Raymond Z. Gallun (September 1939); “Coventry” by Robert Heinlein (July 1940); “Test of the Gods” by Raymond F. Jones (September 1941); “Fog” by Robert Willey (a.k.a Willy Ley)–although I’ll admit that the dystopian picture painted through most of the story was ultimately overcome; “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne (September 1940); and “Seat of Oblivion” by Eric Frank Russell (November 1941).
I’m not arguing whether or not there should be more optimistic stories today than are currently published. Each person has his or her own tastes. What I wanted to make clear is that the Golden Age isn’t always golden. Fiction is often a reflection of the times in which it is written, however distorted that reflection may be. Whether it is optimistic or pessimistic has as much to do with that as it does the mood of the author who wrote it and the editor who bought it. The Golden Age was no different.